“Anti-school attitudes” reduce boys’ job chances
Boys have performed less well than girls at school for as long as such performance has been measured. Nonetheless, to date, the labour market’s winners have been male. So why do we refer to boys’ ‘underperformance’, or ‘underachievement’, as a problem nowadays?
Some time ago, a great deal was written in the daily press about a summary compiled by Lärarnas tidning, the Swedish journal for teachers, based on statistics from the National Agency for Education. It showed that the grades obtained by boys in the last year of compulsory school were inferior to those of girls, compared with the boys’ prowess in national tests. The stir this survey has created is probably explained by the fact that it confirmed the subject of another, more profound debate — the one about boys’ underachievement.
Lagging behind is nothing new for boys. As a group, girls have generally performed better than boys as long as they have had access to education on the same terms. In feminist circles, it is sometimes questioned whether boys’ underperformance is a genuine problem, although it is statistically established.
‘The argument is that boys get on fine when they leave school, anyway. And they do — considerably better than girls in terms of their capacity to get jobs, average lifetime pay and so on. This doesn’t, of course, mean that all boys do well,’ says Professor Inga Wernersson of the Department of Education and Special Education at the University of Gothenburg. She goes on to point out that there are girls who underachieve as well, but that the proportion is lower than among boys.
According to Wernersson, it is the situation outside, rather than inside, school that has altered the focus of the debate from the subordination of girls to the underachievement of boys. In the increasingly stiff labour market, old gender patterns are coming to the fore, in her opinion.
Wernersson continues: ‘When there are plenty of jobs, the boys’ underperformance is not particularly important,’ she explains. ‘They usually get jobs nonetheless. But now they’re in danger of being overtaken by girls with higher qualifications.’
She is supported in this view by Anne-Sofie Kalat, a PhD student at the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University.
‘Education is so crucial these days. Increasingly often, a career requires formal qualifications. Having been to the “right school” can give you important networks, too,’ Kalat says.
Clear objectives for gender equality
Another reason why there is a strong focus on gender in the underachievement context is, Inga Wernersson thinks, the Swedish education system’s tradition of clearly expressed objectives for gender equality.
‘We can assume that, at group level, boys and girls have the same intellectual capacity. They should then attain the same results, and if they don’t the school authorities and politicians must treat it as a problem.’
René Leon Rosales, an ethnologist working at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka, a suburb in southern Greater Stockholm, underlines the need to consider several factors in order to understand, and possibly go some way towards remedying, the problems connected with underachieving boys.
‘The fact that boys as a group subsequently do well in life is not a tenable argument. It doesn’t apply to everyone,’ he asserts.
Rosales continues: ‘There is a statistical pattern that reveals a difference in merit rating between boys and girls as groups, irrespective of socioeconomic background, ethnicity or housing area, with few exceptions. But the absolutely biggest gap is still not between boys and girls, but between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.’
In Inga Wernersson’s opinion, different categories should be considered separately.
‘It provides important information as long as you don’t expect it to apply fully at individual level. Clearly, there are other factors at work: where you live, how much money your parents have, whether you’re in good or poor health, and masses of other variables. But we’re separating out the various components on a scientific basis, to see what their significance is,’ she says.
Another question is what type of ‘underachievement’ we mean. Structurally, boys underperform in relation to girls; but at an individual level pupils can perform worse than their own potential or in relation to their previous achievement level.
‘In the overall discussion, “structural underperformance” is the usual term. But in schools it’s individual performance that’s usually considered,’ says Anne-Sofie Kalat, who has surveyed high-achieving boys, or rather young men, studying on a
Natural Sciences Programme at upper secondary school. Several of them described themselves as ‘underachieving’ in relation to their own intellectual potential. They also asserted that they were not expected to be particularly interested in school work.
‘The boys said that this had two results. One was that they were given lower assessments. The other was that they were treated differently: they were told off more often, and therefore avoided certain situations. This has a major bearing on how adults and peers expect girls and boys to be at school. Their expectations easily become self-fulfilling,’ Anne-Sofie Kalat says.
More ways of forming a successful identity
The notion of an ‘anti-school culture’ among boys is confirmed by some research, although the picture has become more nuanced and been partially called into question in recent years. This anti-school culture is explained by the notion that being diligent at school is incompatible with masculine norms.
René Leon Rosales relates that, among the boys in Year 6 (Most pupils in Year 6 in Swedish compulsory school are aged 11 or 12. Translator’s note) in North Botkyrka that he studied, there were more ways of creating an identity as a successful pupil than excelling in one’s studies — being good at football, for example.
‘The predominance of football as an interest among the boys indicates the central role played by sport in the way various aspects of masculinity are formed in society. The boys played a lot of football in the breaks, and many of them dreamt of becoming professional players.’
In the study, this behaviour was much less common among the girls. Sport is thus, according to Rosales, an arena in which boys can forge their own identities as socially successful in everyday school life. However, being interested in football did not necessarily always conflict with having an identity as a good pupil. Rather, several of the more popular boys were regarded both as good pupils and as good at football.
In Rosales’ view, we get an extremely stereotyped image from Hollywood films, for example. This image is of the good pupil as a wimp, while the cool kids are the nonchalant ones. But being a good pupil does not necessarily have to be socially stigmatising.
‘That image is so radically simplified that it amounts to discrimination,’ he says.
On the other hand, appearing to be someone who cannot be bothered to strive for good results may be part of the anti-school culture.
‘It’s probably partly a matter of the fear of making a fool of oneself,’ Inga Wernersson says.
More grants for research on boys
In the discussion of boys as educational losers it is sometimes argued that research, and then schools, have devoted too much time to girls and their problems. There are people, especially politicians, who have claimed that this has adversely affected boys. The absence of men in the school environment is also said to be part of the problem.
‘There’s been a fairly bitter debate about this, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries. There, the result has been that more research grants have been provided for research on boys. Perhaps that goes some way towards explaining why boys are more visible in the discussion now,’ Wernersson remarks.
She adds that there is no research supporting the contention that male teachers are better for boys. On the other hand, she relates, there is research showing that mixed classes are advantageous for boys, but not for girls. This may, in Wernersson’s opinion, be explained by the fact that girls are often less boisterous and seem to use more effective ways of working. These, in turn, may be connected with the notion that the runners-up in the gender order are not expected to perform well without effort.
Correction checked by third party
To return to the national tests and results in relation to school grades, we may ask: ‘What about discrimination against boys, if any?’
Fairly soon after the above-mentioned survey was carried out there was a new one that partly contradicted the first, showing that unequivocal conclusions about pupil performance cannot be drawn in this way. Researchers at the Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation (IFAU) at Uppsala University allowed a third party to correct 1,700 anonymised national tests for control purposes, to see whether the girls’ superior average results were due to discrimination by the teachers who corrected the examination papers in question.
The disparity persisted and, at the same time, all the exam candidates — irrespective of gender — proved to get better grades from their regular teachers than from the control examiners. This may have been due to the existence of personal relationships, or to the fact that teachers tend to award good grades to show that their particular school performs well in comparison with the competition.
‘All this is about what we’re supposed to be assessing — what we award grades for, how we view knowledge and learning, and so on,’ says Anne-Sofie Kalat. ‘Is it enough for the pupils to crack the code for how the exam system works? The boys
I investigated criticised the grading: they thought it paid more attention to the pupils’ motivation than to their knowledge, which worked to their disadvantage.’
The way in which achievement and underachievement are discussed reflects a highly instrumental view of education, Kalat thinks. This idea may be juxtaposed with Inga Wernersson’s notion that it is the community outside the school that has generated a conflict between boys’, or rather a masculine, code of behaviour and the world of education. With this juxtaposition, it becomes clear that the issue of underperformance is ultimately a matter of our attitudes towards education and what its purpose should be.